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Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The: 20th Anniversary Edition
Release Date(s)1989 (April 8, 2008)
Studio(s)Columbia (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
Discs of movies with tumultuous production histories are almost always a let-down, particularly when the film in question was a financial disappointment. You haven’t seen great DVDs of The Bonfire of the Vanities or Twilight Zone: The Movie, despite the fact that definitive, fascinating books about the making of each of them exist (those would be The Devil’s Candy by Julie Salamon and Outrageous Conduct by Stephen Farber and Marc Green, respectively... if you’re interested in filmmaking, do yourself a favor and check them out).
This is hardly surprising. Studios aren’t often keen on sinking more cash into a project that already proved to be a money pit and the filmmakers in question don’t usually want to go on record about something that didn’t turn out the way they planned, at least not if they want to have lunch in this town again. It’s understandable but it’s still a shame as these movies could yield some of the most fascinating special editions the format can produce.
Case in point: Criterion’s magnificent, definitive 3-disc version of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, one of the most contentious filmmaker vs. studio productions the world has ever seen. That is, at least it was until a few years later when Gilliam decided to make The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
The prolonged, arduous, over-budget filming of Munchausen is a story better told by the participants themselves. Suffice it to say that the film and its reception earned Gilliam a reputation as a chaotic, wildly out-of-control director unable to stay on time or on budget that has dogged him to this day. It’s not entirely a fair depiction of the man. Most of his movies before and since Munchausen have been reasonably budgeted and turned a profit. It’s just that when things do fall apart on Gilliam, they tend to fall apart spectacularly (see the great documentary Lost in La Mancha for the story behind the unmaking of Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote).
Often when a film’s budget overshadows the movie itself, you’re left wondering where the money went. This is certainly not the case with Munchausen. Every dollar that was spent is right there on screen, practically overflowing from Gilliam’s overstuffed frame. More importantly, any stories about the movie’s production fade into obscurity while you’re watching the film itself. I’ve been a Terry Gilliam fan almost as long as I’ve been going to the movies and recommend most of his movies to anybody who will listen (and many who won’t). Remarkably, the one Gilliam movie that everyone I know seems to enjoy is The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. I’ve always been a little shocked by that, actually. The movie is episodic, noisy and careens wildly from scene to scene. But it also has a timeless quality that audiences respond to. It’s both old-fashioned and modern. It’s a comedy/fantasy/adventure where the humor doesn’t rely on pop culture references that date the movie quicker than a timecode. It feels more like a living storybook than a movie.
The cast, including John Neville as the Baron, a young Sarah Polley, Gilliam’s fellow Monty Python alum Eric Idle, Oliver Reed, Uma Thurman and an uncredited Robin Williams, looks as though it stepped straight out of 18th Century woodcuts. Gilliam has long been accused of favoring style over substance, a charge I disagree with. In a case like this, the style is the substance. The movie is a timeless fantasy and Gilliam, production designer Dante Ferretti, costume designer Gabriella Pescucci and director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno immerse us in that world completely.
For years, I held out hope that Criterion would be able to regain the rights to Munchausen and expand on their laserdisc release of the mid-90s. Mainly this was because I assumed Columbia Pictures, having had virtually no interest in supporting the film when they released it theatrically back in 1989, would have no reason to reconsider and do so now. When a special edition was announced for both DVD and Blu-ray, I was amazed. Now that I’ve seen it, I’m downright shocked. It might not be the be-all, end-all special edition I would have liked but it’s remarkably good. The movie looks better than I’ve ever seen it before. Thanks to the 1080p transfer, I was able to make out all of Gilliam’s obsessively crafted details, many of which I’d never noticed before. The Dolby True HD audio isn’t as revelatory, although it does wonders for Michael Kamen’s marvelous score.
The bonus features on here are the real surprise, highlighted by a three-part documentary entitled The Madness and Misadventures of Munchausen. Virtually everyone involved with the film is interviewed, including controversial German producer Thomas Schuhly, Sarah Polley, Eric Idle, and of course, Terry Gilliam. We get to hear stories from every perspective in great detail and some of the participants contradict others. There are plenty of unflattering portrayals of Schuhly, Columbia executives, and Gilliam himself, so kudos to all involved for going on the record like this. This is a rare insider’s look at the bottom-line minutiae of the film industry and one of the best making-of features I’ve seen in a long time.
The most disappointing extra on the disc is the newly-recorded commentary by Gilliam and co-writer/actor Charles McKeown. Gilliam usually delivers reliably first-rate audio commentaries and I’m certainly not saying this one is bad. But Gilliam’s energy seems drained away. His tone is that of a parent talking about a child they’re very proud of but has caused so much trouble over the years that they’re tired of trying to explain to others what they love about this kid.
The rest of the extras are far more enjoyable. There are a handful of deleted scenes, some of which have no soundtrack but are still worth checking out. Of particular interest are the storyboards for sequences that were never filmed with Gilliam and McKeown reading from the screenplay. These are a fascinating glimpse into the movie that got away and it’s interesting to see how those ideas evolved into what was shot. Finally, the Blu-ray disc offers an enhanced subtitle track called The Marvelous World of Munchausen. This is better than some other pop-up trivia features I’ve seen, with information about the production, Gilliam, the real Baron Munchausen and the stories that inspired the film, as well as storyboards and concept art. Not everything here is fresh information but at least it’s all pertinent to the film. I hate when features like this pop up when someone on-screen pulls out a sword with something like, “The sword was first developed during the Bronze Age. Famous swords include Excalibur and Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber!”
Nothing makes me happier than crossing a long-desired title off my wish list and a first-rate special edition of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen has been high up on that list for many, many years. There aren’t many filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and he’s made far too few movies for my tastes. I’m glad to see quirkier cult movies like this starting to appear on Blu-ray, especially when they’re treated this well.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke